For as long as I can remember, the popular wisdom has been that aging increases conservatism. Conservatives who were liberal in their youth frequently report that maturity and experience account for their shift away from liberalism.
But anecdote is not evidence.
That older Americans are more conservative than younger Americans has been well-documented (e.g., Gallup, 2009), but Gallup researchers have also noted:
The pattern is strikingly different on the basis of age, and this could have important political implications in the years ahead. Whereas middle-aged and older Americans lean conservative (vs. liberal) in their politics by at least 2 to 1, adults aged 18 to 29 are just as likely to say their political views are liberal (31%) as to say they are conservative (30%).
Future Gallup analysis will look at the changes in the political ideology of different age cohorts over time (Ital. added), to see whether young adults in the past have started out more liberal than they wound up in their later years.
Notice that the research compares different age cohorts. It does not track people over time. It may be that when today's older Americans were young, they were already conservative. To determine the evolution of ideological leanings over the course of life, researchers would have to follow age cohorts over time, to see what happens to their political views.
So is there any evidence that tells us about intra-cohort ideological shift over time? Yes, there is.
Researchers at University of VT and Penn State collected data from 25 surveys conducted between 1972 and 2004. Changes in attitudes among two age cohorts were analyzed: 1) adults ages 18-39 and 2) adults over age 60.
The analysis revealed that, on average, the younger adults became moderately more conservative with age. But the researchers also found a much greater shift in political attitudes occurred in the older group. These Americans became less conservative over time. The shift away from conservatism in the older group was greater in magnitude and occurred more rapidly than the shift toward conservatism in the younger group.
The findings might have something to do with different generations starting out in different political places from the very beginning. Or shifts in attitude might be related to shifting phase-of-life needs and priorities. What the findings do indicate is that the conventional wisdom associating maturity and experience with political attitude is wrong or, at least, things are much more complicated than is often assumed.
One caution with respect to generalizing from personal experience: we cannot judge the minds and attitudes of older persons based upon how we thought when we were young. A 50, 60 or 70-year-old liberal leaning adult is not necessarily liberal because he or she shares the naivete of a 20-year-old liberal. Michael Kinsley is not a 59-year-old version of a 59-year-old conservative's 20-year-old former liberal self.